Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What Would Boris Karloff Read?

Boris Karloff poses with a fake book. Or at least I thought so. Read on. (Photo via A Certain Cinema)

At the used bookstore where I’ve worked for close to sixteen years, I like to happen upon books I call “prop books.” What I’m referring to are books with very stark and simple covers and nothing but the title on the front -- books that a character might read in a play or on a sitcom, when the director wants the subject to be extremely obvious. The title could be anything from Communism to Lose Weight in One Day, but they all have that same jokey stage look to them. They’re real books, of course, but they look fake.

That’s why I was so pleased when I came upon this fun photograph of Boris Karloff in an obviously concocted pose, reading what I automatically pegged as a prop book, only in this case, a prop book in the real sense of the name. The photo was taken on the set of Tower of London (1939), in which Karloff played Mort, the club-footed assistant of Richard III.

The book Karloff is reading is What Actors Eat When They Eat! and I guessed it to be a commentary on the grueling grind of working on a movie set. I took it as sarcasm, thinking it should almost have an ellipsis for better effect (What Actors Eat … When They Eat. Which Is Pretty Much Never.)

I was wrong. (Mark this on your calendar; it doesn’t happen often.) What Actors Eat When They Eat! is not only as real as Justin Bieber duct tape, it’s apparently highly sought after by book collectors. According to an L.A. Times blogger, it’s the Hollywood connection that has driven up the price -- often as much as $200-$400.

The book, published by small Los Angeles publisher Lymanhouse (which also published They Call Them Camisoles, silent film actress Wilma Carnes’ memoir about being in a mental institution), is actually a cookbook. The major part of its collector-y appeal is the fact that it contains personal recipes from a bevy of 1930s stars.

Recipes in the book include:

  • W. C. Fields’ Brandied Peaches
  • Carole Lombard’s Spareribs
  • Jackie Cooper’s Curried Eggs and Macaroni
  • Joan Crawford’s Charcoal Broiled Steak
  • Finnan Haddie a la Davis (That’s Bette)

A few bloggers lucky enough to own the book have reproduced some recipes, so you can try Harold Lloyd’s Tamale Pie or Cary Grant’s Oven-Barbecued Chicken without spending a few hundred clams.

You can at least eat like Boris Karloff, even if you can’t afford to read like him.

Would you pay $400 dollars for a cookbook? Would Clark Gable’s method of cooking a dozen doves persuade you?

Monday, November 26, 2012

Quotable: Magus-Mania, Twitter hatred, and Whether Books Can Be Twits

Tom Adams' artwork for The Magus, which is not a kind of sandwich.
 It’s that time again. My slim laptop’s fat collection of bookmarks is bursting its seams, so here’s a selection of nifty things I’ve read about books, writing, and publishing in the last few months that you may have missed, and that I feel are worth documenting. Though I’ve singled out the quotable lines, the whole articles are worth a read. Give them a shot, and don’t be afraid to tell me what you think by leaving a clever comment that is itself worth quoting. (Or not. Say whatever, really.)

  • “One way you can tell you’re getting old is when the good girl in the Gold Medal novel appeals to you more than the femme fatale.”

-- Mystery writer Ed Gorman, reviewing Bruno Fischer’s “sleek, dark whodunit” House of Flesh.

  • “I’ll read The Hunger Games when I finish the previous 3,000 years of fiction written for adults.”

-- Joel Stein in the New York Times, explaining why he thinks adults should read adult books. (While this one’s from several months ago, I actually just stumbled across it, and reading the explosion of outrage in the comments section is a pretty good way to while away some time.)

  • “...When I first encountered the book at 20, I disappeared for a week. A quick scan of the morning paper showed no Magus news, so I threw it away. At lunch, my sandwich didn't taste like Magus, so I spit it out.”

-- Writer Nick Dybek talking about John Fowles The Magus on NPR. You don’t have to have read the book to get what Dybek is talking about. You just have to have been obsessed, at least once, with any book, ever.

  • "Twitter is unspeakably irritating. Twitter stands for everything I oppose," said Franzen, according to Attenberg. "It's hard to cite facts or create an argument in 140 characters … It's like if Kafka had decided to make a video semaphoring The Metamorphosis. Or it's like writing a novel without the letter 'P'… It's the ultimate irresponsible medium. People I care about are readers … particularly serious readers and writers, these are my people. And we do not like to yak about ourselves."

-- Jonathan Franzen, never one to shy away from controversy, in The UK’s Guardian. Needless to say, his remarks provoked some heated responses from Twitterphiles. Lipogram devotees have remained silent.

  • Ulysses is a twit.”

-- Brazilian writer Paul Coelho, who seems to blame Joyce for the downfall of English literature. Many bloggers were perplexed by his stance, including one at the University of Rochester, who wondered “Can a book even be a twit?” (For the record, in the same interview, Coelho takes an opposite stance from Franzen, re: Twitter (where he spends several hours a day, calling it his “bar").

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

When Archie Went MAD

 Archie's Mad House took on satire --and succeeded.

Archie and his friends have been around for over sixty years, making the fickle redheaded teen almost as old as Superman. Part of the secret to the comic book’s longevity may be the publisher’s willingness to diversify. To this day, Archie maintains multiple comics lines, and titles like Betty and Veronica and Jughead’s Double Digest are still going strong after decades.

Archie #1 is now valued at around $200,000. (via

Over the years, the Archie Comics company has experimented with all manner of themes -- with or without the Archie gang -- and dropped them like a hot rock if they didn’t take off. Remember Cosmo the Merry Martian, Reggie’s Revenge or Jughead’s Time Police? That’s because they didn’t last long enough for you to recall. Even Jughead’s pet, Hot Dog, had his own comic for a whopping five issues. The folks at Archie Comics keep what works and ditch the rest. (It sounds like a no-brainer for publishing, but there are plenty of examples of publishers beating a dead horse long after a comic has lost its appeal.)

Jughead's Time Police: Don't feel bad --everybody forgot about it. (This and next images via Cover Browser)

In 1959, Archie Comics tried something new --sort of. The idea was inspired by a competitor, and they didn’t try to hide it. Archie’s Mad House debuted in 1959, when MAD magazine was in its heyday, and everyone wanted a slice of it. The first issues featured the regular Archie gang in stories that were more off the wall than usual, or that intentionally made no sense.

Early issues put the Archie gang into surreal situations.

Archie’s Mad House even had its own answer to Alfred E. Neuman: Clyde Diddit. (You can see the slogan “Clyde Diddit --who he?” on several early covers.) Over time, the title changed, morphing into Madhouse, Madhouse Glads, and several other incarnations, including Madhouse Ma-ad Freakout from 1969-70. After the Archie gang was dropped, the covers became goofier and goofier, depicting monsters, hippies, space aliens, and assorted other weirdos. 

Once the Archie gang was dropped, Mad House got wackier...

...and wackier.

Like MAD, Archie’s Mad House spoofed fads and trends of the day. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, that meant things like drag racing, hippie culture, superheroes, pop art, dance crazes, and beatnik slang. Teen culture was a huge part of the Mad House schtick, and it ultimately led to the creation of one of the most popular characters in the Archie universe: Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. Sabrina was the brainchild of cartoonist Dan De Carlo, who created her for Mad House in 1962.

Archie's Mad House liked to spoof youth culture.

Those who only knew Sabrina after she joined the Archie gang in the ‘70s might be surprised at her earlier incarnation. The Mad House Sabrina is not only a sexpot, but quite the bad girl, using her magic to cause trouble --or ensnare boyfriends. The friendly, helpful Sabrina who would eventually have her own TV series is a far cry from the early teen witch who lounges around in revealing costumes, thinking evil thoughts and plotting revenge against her rivals.

Sabrina was an evil vixen when she debuted in Mad House (via Westfield Comics)

However goofy Archie’s Mad House might sound, it worked, and it kept on working until the ‘80s (ultimately morphing into Madhouse Comics Digest), making it one of Archie Comics’ longer series, and also the second-longest lived MAD magazine competitor in history. Only Cracked lasted longer, though Mad House trounced a pile of flash-in-the-pan imitators, like Nuts!, Get Lost, Whack, Riot, Flip, and Eh!

Brigid Alverson of Graphic Novel Reporter, has a neat take on why Mad House matters:

Because they satirized popular culture, the comics may seem dated to modern readers, but they are sort of a cleaned-up time capsule: Archie explains how to become a rock 'n' roll singer, Frankenstein turns out to be a hippie, and Agent X-48 is more interested in sales and gossip than stopping a supervillain. In one surreal Joe Edwards story, creatures called Blips explain how they morphed from blips on a radar screen to spies who hide out in abstract paintings, paisley patterns, and gag greeting cards to spy on Earthlings. It's as good an explanation as any for mid-1960s design.

What’s perhaps most notable, though, is how well Archie Comics adapted to cultural changes, a publishing choice that kept it successful for decades. When the world got weird, well, they got weird right along with it.

Read more about Archie's Mad House: